Guy Fawkes AvatarHacktivism, or What’s With the Guy Fawkes Mask?

Hacktivism is perhaps the form of digital activism that receives the greatest media attention. One mention of the word “Anonymous” conjures up the image of anarchist computer geeks all donning Guy Fawkes masks as they hammer away at their computers in dark basements working diligently to disrupt the online world. This is the image of digital activism that has been seared into too many minds, but hacking really consumes a very small portion of digital action being taken to affect social or political change (Joyce, Howard, & Rosas, 2012), and despite the parallels that are asserted in media and political circles alike, not all hacktivists are akin to cyberterrorists6.

What is hacktivism, anyway? Ultimately, it is a variation of alternative computing, an outgrowth of open source and file sharing software technology, which is used in an antagonistic way to serve a political purpose. In addition to the term cyberterrorism, hacktivism has been linked to such terms as cyber attacking, cyber exploitation, and “digital civil disobedience” (Li, 2013, p. 304).

Hacktivism is not to be confused with illegal hacking activity, like hacking into banks for purposes of theft, which is a more run-of-the-mill cybercrime. Instead, hacktivism is “politically-motivated hacking” that is largely anti-institutional in nature (Warnick & Heineman, 2012, p. 112). It is digital radicalism, particularly when it takes on an anti-war, anti-military flair. Hacktivism is radicalism that is disruptive of ordinary routines or business practices, predominantly within the government. It might be comparable to rallies, sit-ins, or occupation of a government building or establishment (consider traditional radical protests, like Occupy Wall Street). It could be "unauthorized intrusions" (Warnick & Heineman, 2012, p. 121), total website takedown, or website graffiti (such as the defacing of governmental sites like the U.S. Department of Justice and Central Intelligence Agency sites in August and September of 1996). Like cyberterrorists, “hacktivists pursue political goals, but their activity does not correspond quantitatively or qualitatively with the possible outcome of cyberterrorist acts” (Stanley, 2010).

Though hacking activity is discussed repeatedly in the mainstream media, only 2% of activist campaigns looked at in the Digital Activism Research Project (DARP) global digital activism study were found to use hacking “with destructive or disruptive intent” (Joyce, Howard, & Rosas, 2012). Even though hackers who use their digital skills to protest through disruption in the online world are a nuisance, sometimes a very costly one, they are deemed “cyberterrorists” almost exclusively when the target of their work is a government entity.

The Department for Homeland Security defines cyberterrorism as “a criminal act perpetrated through computers resulting in violence, death and/or destruction, and creating terror for the purpose of coercing a government to change its policies.” Despite being compared to al-Qaeda in organizational structure (Warnick & Heineman, 2012, p. 126) and in being present yet simultaneously invisible (the "binary of presence-absence,” [Warnick & Heineman, 2012, p. 133]), Anonymous, who was responsible for hacking Sony, is more an example of theft of intellectual property than cyberterrorism. Yet, because much of their activist work is anti-institutional, anti-government in nature, they are watched by the multitude of agencies investigating cyberterrorism in the United States.

Two individuals recently in the news for their aggressive anti-governmental hacking activities are Julian Assange (Wikileaks) and Edward Snowden. Both of these men consider themselves whistleblowers, indeed, hacktivists. However, as individuals who actively work to disclose abuses of power in the U.S. government, they’ve been labeled cyberterrorists and, should they ever return to the U.S., are likely to be prosecuted under the Patriot Act. Many civil liberties minded individuals are vehemently opposed to the Patriot Act, which they see as a governmental tool to virtually silence any opposition. Thanks to the cyberterrorism clause in the Patriot Act, penalties for hacktivism against government sites have increased from one year in prison to 70 years. This shift can be best explained by the post-9/11 "terrorist-centric rhetoric" of the Bush administration (Warnick & Heineman, 2012, p. 129).

The malicious reformulation of the term “hacktivist,” what Peter Ludlow (2013) calls “lexical warfare” is perpetuated by government entities, yes, but also by private security firms, in whose interest it is to “manufacture a threat” (Ludlow, 2013). The motivations of these two groups, groups that stand to gain most by silencing all hacktivist efforts, should be suspect.

The primary goal of hacktivists is to affect social change (Ludlow, 2013). Digital technology is the medium by which these protests are enacted. In order to ensure the validity of such digital activism, there are efforts both social and legal to have hacktivism recognized as falling within the purview of First Amendment coverage. As Xiang Li (2013) noted in her article “Hacktivism and the First Amendment: Drawing the Line Between Cyber Protests and Crime,” the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) avoids a “categorical prohibition on all forms of hacktivism” specifically recognizing that there are/may one day be viable forms of digital protest that will need the protection of the First Amendment (p. 304). Problematic in the CFAA, however, is that it defines a class of computer systems as “protected”: those belonging to financial institutions (which few would argue with) and the government. Therein lies the problem for an activist; the limitation that protects government computer systems essentially makes it impossible to challenge the authority of the most powerful body in the United States through dissident digital protest. The effect of this limitation runs counter to the concept of civil disobedience, what Civil Rights era Judge Frank Johnson described as a “procedure for challenging a law or policy” (qtd. in Schmidt, 2010, p. 778), the very disobedience illustrated by the sit-ins of the 60s.

To secure protection for what’s known as "distributed denial-of-service" (DDoS) attacks, or server take-downs, Anonymous petitioned the White House in January of 2013 to recognize DDoS attacks as a legitimate and legal form of protest. The organization classified their DDoS work as a virtual sit-in, claiming it to be “no different than any ‘occupy’ protest. Instead of a group of people standing outside a building to occupy the area, they are having their computer occupy a website to slow (or deny) service of that particular website for a short time” (Masnick, 2013).

The criminal liability comes into play when deciding whether or not the hacktivist work is destructive or just disruptive, as well as whether or not the point of protest is on the “property” of the target. The particulars of the discussion surround what constitutes private property (an actual website, the server, the content on the site) and public forum (messages of protest in pop-up windows launched when a user comes to the target website), which are further analyzed in Li’s (2013) article. Again, the debate here can return to a very basic question: who owns the property of the government? Ultimately, the conversation is evolving as the potential of digital protestation is being further realized.

To be clear, cybercrime should be punished, just as any other crime. However, we cannot conflate the terms cybercrime, cyberterrorism, and cyberactivism. There is no denying that public perception influences legislation and public policy, so advocates for hacktivism are hard at work trying to stay ahead of the curve, to ensure their voices and efforts will not be silenced by policy and propaganda that equates all anti-institutional hacktivist efforts to cyberterrorism.

Despite what the government entities warn, it could be debated that there is a purpose and a place for hacktivism, and the method shouldn’t be entirely dismissed as unworthy or annoying. Instead, we might embrace hacktivism as one of the many available tools of resistance, particularly when the object of resistance is the government. Hacktivism provides unique opportunity to advocate a valuable anti-institutional position. It is a strategy that exists to check power, acknowledge imbalances, and demand restoration of balance in power when necessary.

Clearly there is reason to value radicalism and rebellion, which have proven effective at some points in history, and we should also challenge the governmental and mainstream media criticism of such hacktivists (as well as the inappropriate parallels drawn to cyberterrorism). We must think critically about the type of information hacktivists are providing as a result of their digital action as well as the rhetorical value of hacktivism in a digital world.

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